The Holy Mountain (1926) – Film Review

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Director: Arnold Fanck
Cast: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen
Certificate: U

by Sarah Morgan

It’s almost impossible to hear the name Leni Riefenstahl without thinking of the Third Reich; her most famous works as a director remain the propaganda projects Triumph of the Will and Olympia, and her exact relationship with Adolf Hitler remains open to debate.

the holy mountain film review coverWhatever the truth about her politics and personal beliefs may be, there is little doubt that she was a gifted and visionary film-maker, a trailblazing woman in an industry dominated by men.

She became a director by accident. Her original career was as a dancer, and she moved into acting after becoming enamoured by the work of Arnold Fanck; The Holy Mountain was her second project with him and does indeed feature scenes of her dancing – scenes which are said to have impressed Hitler himself.

“Eye for an extraordinary image”

She also had her first stint behind the camera on the film, shooting night sequences in which torch-bearing men search for missing climbers; her eye for an extraordinary image is already clear.

The story itself is basically a love triangle focusing on the relationship between Riefenstahl’s young dancer and the two climbers she has bewitched. The plot is actually not that enticing, but the real joy is in the extraordinary shots of snowy landscapes and death-defying climbing, downhill skiing and avalanche-dodging.

Every frame is beautifully composed; you could take one, frame it and pass it off as a work of art.

It’s difficult to say whether Riefenstahl was actually a decent actress; performances in silent movies tend to be rather overblown by today’s standards, but she later claimed that legendary film pioneer Josef von Sternberg had offered to turn her into a major star, just as he had for Marlene Dietrich, which makes you think she must have had some sort of skill.

“Worth a look”

Fanck’s work, and that of some other inter-war German film-makers, has been somewhat overshadowed by those of the Expressionist directors, which is somewhat unfair. Yes, he’s not as stylish as, say, Fritz Lang or FW Murnau, but he’s perhaps more daring, preferring to shoot outside in all manner of terrible conditions in a search for realism, rather than sticking to the safety of the studio.

The special features are certainly worth a look too – there’s an audio commentary from film historian Travis Crawford and the three-hour documentary ‘The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl’.

‘The Holy Mountain’ is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, £16.99


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